Arts advocates locally and nationally frequently point to the economic, social and community benefits that come to cities where the arts thrive. Economic analyses, such as that recently commissioned by the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR), have quantified the impact of the arts.
“We recognize that a lively arts community contributes significantly to our quality of life, fosters an environment for open dialogue, and creates a dynamic economic community,” Mayor John Suthers said recently. “The Colorado Springs arts scene was at one time a well-kept secret — but no more!”
The arts community certainly appears to be lively and vibrant — but has our arts infrastructure kept up with the sector’s explosive growth? That’s debatable.
“Have you seen COPPeR’s Arts & Culture Directory?” asked Kathleen Fox Collins, who has been deeply involved in the arts community for four decades. “They list 438 arts organizations — that’s just unbelievable!”
Organizations listed range from the Little London Assembly, an informal English country dance group, to established cultural institutions such as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic and the Fine Arts Center. Given that there are only two major publicly owned brick-and-mortar venues in the city, most arts groups rely on other performance or exhibition spaces.
In 1923, the municipally owned Colorado Springs City Auditorium opened. Proposed by the all-female Colorado Springs Civic League a decade earlier, voters overwhelmingly approved auditorium construction in 1921. The auditorium’s seating capacity of 2,655 was more than 10 percent the city’s population. The final cost: $424,910, including seating, fixtures and stage equipment. Ninety-four years later, the auditorium hosts many small events annually, but none that fill the space to capacity. Some potential users agree that the city has been an indifferent steward of the building, which still features its original wooden seating and awkward configuration. Can the city find the funds to fully restore the magnificent old building?
“That’s an open-ended question,” said City Councilor Jill Gaebler. “The mayor has said that under no circumstances will we sell it, but it’s very difficult to fund it from our general fund budget. We may be able to use [the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax] funds in the future for auditorium capital projects, though.”
Nearly 60 years later, the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts debuted. Like the city auditorium, its funding structure was approved by a public vote, this time by the citizens of El Paso County. Internationally known for its superb acoustics, the center is home to the Philharmonic and hosts more than 200 concerts, traveling shows and events annually.
“The Pikes Peak Center is wonderful,” said Collins, who worked as development director for the Colorado Springs Symphony (the Philharmonic’s predecessor) for many years, “but no one [locally] can afford it except the Philharmonic.”
Collins, who helped found Opera Theatre of the Rockies in 1998 and now serves as the organization’s president, knows all about scrounging around for performance spaces.
“Remember, we have lots of churches that can work for some performances, as well as schools, the Fine Arts Center and Colorado College spaces,” she said. “Packard Hall is a gem, but it’s very much a college space, the [Richard F. Celeste Theatre] is somewhat difficult, and Armstrong [now the Kathryn Mohrman Theatre] is what it is.”
Since 1998, the Opera Theatre of the Rockies has hopscotched from venue to venue after presenting its first performance at the restored FAC Theatre. Recent performances have taken place at Packard Hall, the First Christian Church and Mohrman. They’re almost done wandering though, thanks to a gleaming new building nearing completion on North Nevada Avenue.
The $72 million Ent Center for the Arts sits on the western edge of the UCCS campus. When it opens in January 2018, it will house TheatreWorks and the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, and be home to the Opera Theatre’s productions. The 92,000-square-foot facility will include a recital hall, a 786-seat auditorium, a 250-seat black box theater, a 100-seat small performance space and a fully climate-controlled space for GOCA.
The large auditorium has long been on the arts community’s wish list, but will it be affordable and available to other non-university organizations?
Privately owned spaces include Stargazers, a renovated ’60s movie theater; the Gold Room, once the home of Colorado Springs Utilities; as well as the Pinery on the Hill, a relatively new events center; hotel-owned conference/events centers, school auditoriums, city parks, churches, faith-based nonprofits and dedicated spaces such as the Millibo and the Iron Mountain Chateau. The Air Force Academy’s Arnold Hall has hosted many notable performers, as has the Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts. The Pioneers Museum, a city history museum featuring exhibitions and collections, rarely makes its galleries available to unaffiliated groups.
The Pikes Peak Library District has multiple meeting/exhibition/performance venues in its three main branches, including the newly minted partnership with DIY performance cooperative Flux Capacitor, which occupies the Knights of Columbus building at 25 W. Kiowa St.
What we need — or don’t
As Collins pointed out, local artists, art groups and promoters have been flexible, inventive and adaptable, as have businesses that incorporate arts venues. Bars, restaurants, streets and back alleys may not seem like arts venues, but they can function as such.
Since opening 40 years ago, Poor Richard’s displayed the for-sale work of local visual artists, a practice now common in locally owned restaurants and coffee shops. The Downtown Partnership’s “Art on the Streets” has helped transform once-dreary sidewalks and medians into a movable arts feast. Gentle Fritz and Christina Stone’s Zodiac Venue hosts bands, burlesque, art shows and performance art, while Nina Lee and Rollie Ortiz’s 503W features art on the walls and musicians on the stage.
“The key pieces we’re missing right now are affordable places for creatives and artists to live and work,” said Downtown Partnership Urban Engagement Manager Claire Swinford. “Some of our best artists — Wendy Mike, Lorelei Beckstrom — have space on the second floor of the Saks Building [29 E. Bijou St.], but that will end eventually. And the demand for studio space is incredible — there are people from other states on the waiting list for studios at Cottonwood.”
The Cottonwood Center for the Arts, based in what was once a nondescript ’70s office building, includes multiple galleries, 79 artist studios and a small performance arts space.
“Infrastructure isn’t a word that I associate with the arts,” said musician and performer Lauren Ciborowski, who owns the Modbo gallery. Partnering with Max Ferguson, Ciborowski has launched a new performance arts initiative, Bijou Shakes. Beginning next summer, it’ll feature Shakespeare’s plays performed in the alley that borders Modbo.
“It’s a different model for the arts,” said Swinford, (Ferguson’s spouse). “There’s no building, no nonprofit, no venue rental — it’s just an alley.”
“I’m proud that Modbo is for-profit and that I’ve kept it going for eight years,” said Ciborowski. “I don’t have a board, I have no one to please, no forms to fill out. And maybe the lack of infrastructure has created opportunity for lots of scruffy little projects like Bijou Shakes!” n CSBJ